Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The Ive Mind

with 3 comments

Jonathan Ive and Steve Jobs

Like many readers, I spent much of yesterday working my way through Ian Parker’s massive New Yorker profile of Apple designer Jonathan Ive. Over the years, we’ve seen plenty of extended feature pieces on Ive, who somehow manages to preserve his reputation as an intensely private man, but it feels like Parker set out to write the one to end them all: it’s well over fifteen thousand words long, and there were times, as I watched my progress creeping slowly by in the scroll bar, when I felt like I was navigating an infinite loop of my own. (It also closes in that abrupt New Yorker way that takes apparent pride in ending articles at the most arbitrary place possible, as if the writer had suffered a stroke before finishing the last paragraph.) Still, it’s a fine piece, crammed with insights, and I expect that I’ll read it again. I’ve become slightly less enamored of Apple ever since my latest MacBook started to disintegrate a few months after I bought it—by which I mean its screws popped out one by one and its plastic casing began to bubble alarmingly outward—but there’s no doubting Ive’s vision, intelligence, and ability to articulate his ideas.

Like a lot of Apple coverage, Parker’s article builds on the company’s mythology while making occasional stabs at deflating it, with paragraphs of almost pornographic praise alternating with a skeptical sentence or two. (“I noticed that, at this moment in the history of personal technology, Cook still uses notifications in the form of a young woman appearing silently from nowhere to hold a sheet of paper in his line of sight.”) And he’s best not so much at talking about Apple’s culture as at talking about how they talk about it. Here’s my favorite part:

[Ive] linked the studio’s work to NASA’s: like the Apollo program, the creation of Apple products required “invention after invention after invention that you would never be conscious of, but that was necessary to do something that was new.” It was a tic that I came to recognize: self-promotion driven by fear that one’s self-effacement might be taken too literally. Even as Apple objects strive for effortlessness, there’s clearly a hope that the effort required—the “huge degree of care,” the years of investigations into new materials, the months spent enforcing cutting paths in Asian factories—will be acknowledged.

Early patent sketches for Apple handheld device

I love this because it neatly encapsulates the neurosis at the heart of so much creative work, from fiction to industrial design. We’re constantly told that we ought to strive for simplicity, and that the finished product, to use one of Ive’s favorite terms, should seem “inevitable.” Yet we’re also anxious that the purity of the result not be confused with the ease of its creation. Writers want readers to accept a novel as a window onto reality while simultaneously noticing the thousands of individual choices and acts of will that went into fashioning it, which is inherently impossible. And it kills us. Writing a novel is a backbreaking process that wants to look as simple as life, and that contradiction goes a long way toward explaining why authors never feel as if they’ve received enough love: the terms of the game that they’ve chosen ensure that most of their work remains invisible. Novels, even mediocre ones, consist of “invention after invention after invention,” a daunting series, as T.H. White noted, of “nouns, verbs, prepositions, adjectives, reeling across the page.” And even when a story all but begs us to admire the brilliance of its construction, we’ll never see more than a fraction of the labor it required.

So what’s a creative artist to do? Well, we can talk endlessly about process, as Ive does, and dream of having a profile in The Paris Review, complete with images of our discarded drafts. Or we can push complexity to the forefront, knowing at least that it will be acknowledged, even if it goes against what we secretly believe about the inevitability of great art. (“The artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails,” James Joyce writes, and yet few other authors have been so insistent that we recognize his choices, even within individual words.) Or, if all else fails, we can rail against critics who seem insufficiently appreciative of how much work is required to make something feel obvious, or who focus on some trivial point while ignoring the agonies that went into a story’s foundations. None of which, of course, prevents us from taking the exact same attitude toward works of art made by others. Ultimately, the only solution is to learn to live with your private store of effort, uncertainty, and compromise, never advertising it or pointing to all your hard work as an excuse when it falls short. Because in the end, the result has to stand on its own, even if it’s the apple of your eye.

Written by nevalalee

February 18, 2015 at 9:50 am

3 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. What extraordinary hubris — comparing themselves to the Apollo program!

    Darren

    February 18, 2015 at 4:47 pm

  2. I knew you’d say that.

    nevalalee

    February 18, 2015 at 9:09 pm

  3. Tee hee hee.

    Darren

    February 19, 2015 at 1:22 pm


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: